Customer Engagement- A New Approach Needed


by Mike Guyton, Oncor Electric Delivery

In our old guise as a mid-century electric utility, we knew Oncor was getting by. We were proud of our 132-year history serving Texas. Thousands of dedicated employees carved out a hard-won legacy of reliable service for our customers; however, we also knew it was time to shed the one-size-fits-all mindset common in the industry. We needed a facelift.

With that frank self-assessment in mind, we tightened up and sharpened our focus, operations and customer service. We are working to make a growing system better, faster and smarter. We want to solve problems before customers even know they exist. Oncor is a big operator in a heavily regulated business, and sometimes our customers’ needs have changed more quickly than our industry’s traditional standards of service. To be candid, we were not always ready or able to recognize, meet and exceed these expectations. That mindset led to outdated infrastructure and customer satisfaction numbers that did not always pass muster.

Today, we’re breaking these old molds. As we invest in new technology, we are becoming a different company-one that acts as a trusted adviser for consumers. Changing the way we do business is exciting, but it’s not easy. Change rarely is, especially in our industry.

One person helps put a human face to this shift in culture, operations and mindset at our company today: a proud Texas native and Oncor customer named Ellen.

Ellen grew up in our service area, and her parents did, too. She can recall as a young girl her parents’ surprise at the monthly electric bill and the Texas winter storms that made their power go out. In those days, her parents might have pulled out the phone book to look up our number and dialed using a rotary telephone, which, you’ll remember, still worked during outages. They probably took turns waiting on hold to report it, and I bet they might have had some choice words for us as they waited.

Once the report was made, her parents didn’t know when power would be restored. They probably ate takeout by candlelight and used some extra blankets at night to stay warm. At some point the power would return, and life would resume to normal.

Today, Ellen is a mom and doctor with her own practice. She has time and responsibility constraints that she never saw growing up, and she needs access to electric power information, tools and customer service that her parents never were offered. She doesn’t have a rotary phone-or even a home phone. She has a smartphone with access to Facebook and Twitter, and with that she’s more plugged in than her parents ever were. After learning about Ellen’s needs and the needs of thousands of customers like her, we’re giving ourselves a jolt and working to become a better, more responsive company.

How We’re Changing

For the past five years we have invested more than $1 billion annually in our grid, installing new equipment and substantially improving technology. This commitment has paid off, and we will continue this infrastructure investment for at least the next five years. But to meet the needs of customers like Ellen, we must improve more than our technology; we need to change our culture.

This is why I’ve asked our teams in the field who interact with customers every day to talk to those customers. Their assignment: Bridge the gap between how things were and how things need to be. It seems basic, but this is a dramatic change for a regulated company such as ours. For years we talked at our customers but left a lot of their suggestions in the comment box. Now, with those teams in the field and some exciting new forays we’ve made into social media, we are better able to hear and respond to customer feedback.

We are using these new opportunities to open two-way, substantive conversations that don’t stop. It’s not easy. Sometimes we hear things that are uncomfortable or hard to listen to, and sometimes we communicate in ways that are new to us and our employees.

Our responsibility as a utility, however, is to engage with customers, share insights and improve our company. It’s the only long-term solution that’s sustainable.

How We’re Achieving Engagement

Apart from improving our use of social media, one way we use the Internet to engage more with our customers is through two websites.

One of them,, provides energy use data from advanced meters in 15-minute increments. All our customers have to do is create an account using information on their electric bills to get a detailed glimpse of their energy use before they get an unwelcome surprise in their monthly bills. Access to this type of information puts customers in control of their electricity use. They can monitor electricity usage in real time-watch the usage climb when the kids come home from school or when they turn on the heat, air conditioning or oven.

On the website, we provide access to tools and programs to educate consumers about energy efficiency in their communities. These programs help residential consumers, business owners and government and educational facilities jump-start their energy efficiency efforts.

Since 2002, these programs have spent more than $542 million and helped customers reduce 1,152 MW of peak demand while saving more than 2.7 million MWh.

Social Media Channels

These two new user-centered websites are important, but they only cover good news: how to save money and use energy more efficiently.

To keep sharpening our culture change, we must respond to all customer concerns all the time, especially when customers lose power.

We’ve started responding to outages and problems through social media because conversations about us occur whether we’re there or not.

It also allows us to have one-on-one conversations with customers; to respond to them as needed; and, when possible, to educate them. It allows us to be part of big conversations early. We know social media posts sometimes drive the news cycle, too, so this gives us an early warning.

For example, during a multiday December storm, we posted or tweeted information more than 60 times, were mentioned in more than 9,000 social media conversations and privately responded to more than 650 people with updates on their particular situations.

All of those conversations weren’t positive, but we know that trusted advisers engage with customers through their positive and negative experiences. Doing this also gives us greater visibility when we assess our operational challenges. During that storm, a customer’s social media comment alerted us to an issue with our Text Oncor program, which allows customers to communicate directly with our company about outages. That comment gave us a three-hour jump on the problem.

By the time the news media became aware of the issue, we had a solution.

Not everyone embraces new technology, though. We understand and want to accommodate that. Customers communicate differently. Some have the equivalent of the old rotary phone, and some don’t even use phones anymore because they rely on the Internet. It’s up to us to find and engage them on their terms.

Oncor’s push into social media also has given us the opportunity to launch some creative thought leadership initiatives.

For example, on Sunday, Oct. 27, the National Geographic Channel aired “American Blackout,” a fictional movie about a national power failure caused by a cyberattack. Oncor Communications saw the film as an opportunity to educate our social media audience, promote goodwill with our customers and position Oncor and our executives as engaged leaders.

Our “American Blackout” social media campaign focused on live tweeting during the movie with three main components:

Facts and information. To educate our Twitter followers, we tweeted facts and information about what the movie was portraying, including correcting movie points that we deemed inaccurate.

Expert commentary. During the movie, we filmed, posted to YouTube and tweeted brief videos of Oncor subject matter experts’ reacting to what they had just seen in the movie-similar to sports commentators or expert analysis during a History Channel show.

Humor. “American Blackout” had some farfetched scenarios, such as cell phones with enough battery power to capture the 10-day blackout. So we occasionally tweeted funny remarks and comments on some ridiculous aspects of the film. Humor is a powerful communications tool, and brands that use it wisely benefit from positive customer sentiment.

Social media is helping us open and maintain dialogues with customers and respond to their concerns. But dialogue isn’t enough. Responding isn’t enough. If we want to implement those culture changes fully, we must act, too. We must ask ourselves, “What’s the next big innovation that we can give to our customers?”

As every good company should recognize, we don’t have all the answers. But if we listen, we will find them. That’s why we’re investing in technology and asking our customers what they want. Our goal is fundamental: Come to a solution together and work toward putting the fix in place.

Just as Ellen let us know how our old one-size-fits-all style of doing things didn’t fit her needs, we hope more customers will let us know what works and doesn’t work for them. That way, we can grow in the direction they want.

Mike Guyton is senior vice president and chief customer officer for Oncor with system responsibility for customer operations including communications, community relations and customer and market operations.

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